When I saw the online quiz that predicts how long you’ll live, I was psyched to take it.
That might sound a bit death-obsessed for a 28-year-0ld, but I’ve planned with my loved ones what they should do with my remains (launching my skeleton into space or being turned into a tree).
I figured I should calculate when it will happen to give them a little extra time to plan.
Death is going to happen anyway, so why wouldn’t I want to know when it will?
The calculator, created by Thomas Perls, the director of the New England Centenarian Study, predicts an approximate age at death using parameters like diet, exercise, social life and family history.
Going into it, I expected an average life expectancy, which for a woman my age is approximately 82.
After a page asking for my birth date, gender, and zip code (for data analysis, Perls said), the questionnaire dives right into personal details on the next page. It includes life questions about marital status, work hours, and education level.
For example, the test wants to know about my social circle:
My family lives in Nevada so I only see them during the holidays. Two close childhood friends live in the city, but we only see each other about once a month. We don’t meet as often as we should, and it turns out that may be affecting my longevity.
Good social lives “lead to increased cognitive stimulation and activity, which are linked to healthy ageing,” Perls said. “It’s also important for people who are older to establish and frequent social networks in the event they need somebody.”
“People with stronger social relationships had a 50 per cent increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships,” according to a 2010 study published in PLOS Medicine. The meta-analysis surveyed 148 studies and found that
a good social life is correlated with a longer life and better health. Robust social support networks are also “linked to better health practices.” It’s easier to start healthy habits, like playing sports or eating well, with friends than alone.
These social interactions can also reduce stress and depression.
Family and friends help their loved ones though stressful events like illness or rough life transitions. This psychological stress is associated with a higher risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and lower the body’s ability to control inflammation and fight illness.
I knew this test would ask about stress levels, which for me are quite high. What’s more important than how stressed you are, though, is you handle the stress.
To deal with my high levels of anxiety I meditate as often as I can, sometimes taking 5 minutes on the subway to close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Studies show that mindfulness meditation, the practice of focusing on the moment, can lead to a reduction in stress and depression.
The next page includes questions about bad habits, like smoking, alcohol, drug use, and not wearing sunscreen. Now for an embarrassing admission that I was hoping wouldn’t come up on the test — I only floss when I remember, probably about once every two days.
As you could have guessed, good dental health is highly correlated with many other positive health factors.
Not flossing daily leads to a whole host of dental problems like gum disease, tooth decay, and tooth loss. People who have gum diseases are also at higher risk for diseases that affect more than one area of the body, including kidney disease and diabetes.
What you put into your mouth impacts your longevity long before it’s time to floss. Next up on the site are questions about nutrition and exercise.
Foods made with white sugar, white flour and white rice are often processed, lack nutrients like B-vitamins, and contain simple carbohydrates, meaning they are composed of one or two sugars and are quickly converted to glucose in the body. They are also high in the glycemic index, which measures how much an item of food increases blood sugar.
Having high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is a “hallmark sign for diabetes.” Eating too much food high on the glycemic index and not expending enough energy to burn it off can lead to obesity. Overeating unhealthy food can also put people at risk of diabetes, the seventh leading cause of death in the country, according to 2010 CDC data.
Since I have a family history of diabetes and I eat white bread, pasta, potatoes, and white rice every day, this was another longevity fail. Perls told me that I’d have to minimise the carbs in my diet if I want to live longer. CDC recommends maintaining a diet that includes moderate amounts of starchy foods like potatoes, whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, and legumes.
Another mark against me came at the bottom of the page: My activity levels are appallingly low on this scale from the questionnaire:
I sit while I’m at work, and I sit at home. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in that. New CDC data reveals that New Yorkers sit for an average 7 hours a day.
The CDC recommends that all adults do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity) plus muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week — and that’s considered a minimum for health. I tend to do yoga after work on a weekday (which also doubles as meditation for reducing stress) and run or do some other type of exercise on the weekend, but that might not be enough to save me.
Diseases can sneak up on me if I don’t see my doctor regularly. That issue came up on the next page, which covered medical questions like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and whether I’ve had a heart attack.
I have insurance through the New York State of Health Marketplace but haven’t had an annual check-up, which includes tests for cholesterol and blood pressure. I’ve been avoiding making an appointment for fear of incurring additional charges but according to Perls, I may not be able to afford putting it off any longer.
I have a family history of heart disease, but haven’t had my cholesterol levels checked for years. These tests calculate the amount and types of cholesterol in the blood. HDL cholesterol is considered “good” cholesterol, as it’s associated with lower risks for heart disease. LDL cholesterol is considered “bad” because it “can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries and result in heart disease and stroke.”
“It’s pretty important to have your cholesterol checked, especially for people like you who have familial risks,” Perls said. “Your LDLs can be very high even at the age of 28 and you might have to make major changes to your diet or take medication.”
At this point, my confidence about getting an average age had deflated. I don’t smoke, sleep well, and exercise twice a week. But still feared the test was about to tell me I’d die before reaching retirement.
This quick test pointed out several areas in my life I could improve and areas I couldn’t avoid, like my family history, that ultimately decide my longevity. I thought I’d be lucky to reach 80 at all. I clicked on with dread.
I didn’t expect this. That’s five years more than I expected and only two years fewer than what Perls cited as an ideal lifespan for women — 89 years old — based on research about the Seventh Day Adventists, an enclave of people in California with very healthy lifestyles and unusually long life expectancies.
“Compared to what people’s genes are capable of achieving, it’s 89 for women and 86 for men,” Perls said. “If you do a bunch of things and are fighting against your genes then that will go down. If you have at least some longevity in your family, that can boost it by as much as 10 years.”
Given this number, I’m feeling pretty comfortable enjoying the time I have left instead of trying to radically increase it with extreme changes. I exercise because I enjoy being fit. I meditate because it calms me. There are things I plan on changing, like my diet, but that’s because I want to live a healthy life for those 87 years.
That said, I am going to book that check-up.
Take the Living to 100 Calculator and see how you measure up.
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